It is that time of year when winter is getting a tad old and we all are looking forward to spring and the wondrous things that come with it, including baseball. Spring training is under way for the pros, and it won’t be long until the local boys of summer, our town teams, take to the field.
Looking back in history, baseball has always played a prominent role in Watkins. One of the earliest teams in town history played in what was known as the Great Soo League and dates back to 1926. Charter teams were Watkins, Eden Valley, Holdingford, Albany, Paynesville, Waite Park, St. Joseph, and St. Anthony Parish of St. Cloud.
The league got its name from the fact that the teams were situated along the tracks of either the Soo Line or the Northern Railroad. In fact, players would often hop on railcars and hitch a lift to the neighboring town they were set to play.
It’s no surprise that one of the biggest rivalries in the league was between Watkins and Eden Valley. In those early years the Watkins club was led by a feisty catcher named Pep Weber and a tall skinny first-bagger named Eugene McCarthy. (McCarthy would later go on to fame as a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate.)
Weber would stay in Watkins and run a general merchandise store.
“I would say our rivalry with Eden Valley was always pretty friendly,” said Weber, who died Feb. 26, 1988, at the age of 88.
And, although the rivalry was friendly, Weber didn’t like losing a game to Eden Valley because of the bragging rights that went along with it.
The players back then were a colorful lot. And because baseball was about the only organized sporting event in town, the players became local celebrities. At the height of the Great Soo League’s popularity, crowds often would number more than a thousand.
Gate receipts were sometimes used to pay players, especially a quality pitcher or catcher. It was not uncommon for a team to spend up to $20 for a star player.
In those early days, the ball fields were nothing like they are today. There were no lights, no fancy bleachers, and few places to sit. Sometimes the games were played in a pasture, and fans sat along the foul lines.
Teams were sometimes comprised of entire families. One of the best known in those days was the Ebnets of Holdingford. Watkins had its own famous brother team – the Rausch brothers – who played during the 1913-14 seasons. The brothers were the sons of Frank and Anna Rausch.
One brother, Val, became a top-notch pitcher and was sought by some semi-pro teams. Val pitched for St. John’s University from 1911-13 and was said to have pinpoint control, a spit ball, blazing fastball, and a terrific curveball.
He would eventually play for other teams and recorded 21 strikeouts in one game that he pitched for Degraff against Litchfield.
In 1912 he pitched for Maple Lake and was paid $20 a game, sometimes pitching two games a week. That was good money considering that a common laborer at the time was earning about $1.50 per day.
The other Rausch brothers were: Chris, who took over the family farm; Jake, who became a merchant; Mike, a banker and postmaster; Peter, a banker; Frank, who worked for Northern States Power; Andrew, a banker; William, a traveling salesman; and Tony, who worked for Bismark Furniture. Tony, the youngest, was 13 when he played shortstop on the team.
This information was taken in part from “The First 100 Years,” a history book done for the centennial celebration for Watkins and
St. Anthony Church by award-winning journalist Mike Nistler.